My latest article is up at CatholicMom.com:
Image Credit: WikiCommons
My latest article is up at CatholicMom.com:
Image Credit: WikiCommons
The historical novel I am currently working on takes place in the southern fringes of medieval Kievan Rus‘ (Russia).
Did I know anything about medieval Russia when I began this project? No. But sometimes ideas come along in the most unexpected of places. For me, it was this painting:
I saw Konstantin Makovsky’s The Boyar Wedding Feast at the Hillwood Museum in Washington, D.C. Makovsky, a Russian painter living at the end of the 19th century, painted this and many other scenes and portraits of medieval Russia. His work was a product of the same era of Russian patriotism that produced War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov.
My sister-in-law gave us a print of the painting and we had it framed for Christmas. As I was brainstorming ideas for my novel-writing class, I kept coming back to our newly hung print. Here was a story: in my mind’s eye, a political drama with a romantic subplot. See all the machinations going on in the background? The shabby furs of the land-rich, cash-poor boyar, the father of the groom with the goblet raised? The juxtaposition of opulence and poverty? The rich traditions of a Russian wedding – the goose, the chicken, the first kiss, the matchmaker? The romantic tension?
At first I tried to write a futuristic medievalish story based on the painting, largely because I didn’t want the trouble of doing historical research on top of my classwork. But I stole Russian elements for my futuristic story, and, as I wrote and read, the story began to shift back in time.
Then I discovered them: the Brodnici.
A little-known ethnic group on the outskirts of Russia, living along important trade routes, vassals to the larger Russian principalities? Yes, please!
The painting above is a 16th century Russian scene, but with a little maneuvering, I turned its characters into 12th century Brodnici nobles.
The Brodnici lived in what is now eastern Romania, Moldova, and southern Ukraine along the Dnieper and Dniester rivers, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. We know they existed because we have textual evidence from a papal bull of the “Brodnici lands” as well as some Russian records of their military service to Kiev in the mid 12th century. We know that they were vassals of Suzdal (modern day Moscow) in the early 13th century and that they fought with the Mongols against Kiev in 1223. All this, but I have yet to see the Brodnici on any map of historical Russia.
The Brodnici themselves left no written record nor archeological evidence. The name “Brodnici” means “wanderer”; likely they were a nomadic warrior clan with little time or ability for writing, being in constant battle against perhaps the Russians, but likely the Cumans and Pechenegs as well.
One source I found in the school library said that the Brodnici “never accepted the rule of Kiev.” I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like a story waiting to be written!
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons
Long time no blog, my friends.
Happily, it hasn’t been long time no write. On the contrary, I recently finished my first complete draft of a novel.
5-0-0-2-7 words! Small novel, but a huge accomplishment for me.
(Can I get a wha-wha?)
I use the word “complete” rather loosely. It’s “complete” in that I began at the beginning, worked my way through the middle, and ended at the end. But, having followed the NaNoWriMo drafting model (i.e. “pantsing”), it’s consequently a bit pile of mush.
As Mr. Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.”
(Eloquent and succinct, he is.)
At the moment, my writing class is in-between phases: we just finished our drafts, all glorious 50K words of each, for each of us, but in a mere few days we begin turning our piles of doo-doo into something resembling a coherent and cohesive story. We will be writing our story synopsis.
What is a synopsis? you might be asking. A synopsis, long or short, is the short story form of the novel. Most agents and editors want to see a synopsis before requesting a manuscript. Many novelists dread writing synopses – who wants to turn their 100K work of liquid literary genius into 10 pages of short story? No one. Which is why our professor is making us write one. She’s draconian like that.
Once I have a working synopsis, should I choose to rewrite the novel, I can do so from the synopsis. What was doo-doo becomes much more, and better.
Thanks for bearing with my silence. Believe me, it’s been anything but silent in my writing head.
Novelists out there: Ever been asked to choose a “mentor” novel?
The intensive novel writing class I begin soon requires that I choose a mentor novel. This is a novel that I have already read and loved for its style, genre, tone, plotting, humor, language, or whatever reason, and wish to emulate in some way.
Question is, what to choose? What novels are educative for the writer learning her craft?
I can say what will not work. My preference might be the Eliots and Tolstoys, but Middlemarch and War and Peace wouldn’t make good mentor novels. At least, good mentor novels for the likes of me. Why? They are too long and too complex. Normally, as a reader, I would consider these to be good qualities in a novel. Who doesn’t love delving into the delightful complexities of an epic masterpiece? But they fail as mentor novels because a writer would be hard-pressed to get their minds around the structure of those books. And getting our minds around the structure of a book is what having a mentor novel is all about.
That being said, I’m toying with two novels right now: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.
Pride and Prejudice is an easy, obvious choice. I love Austen’s novels and I know them well (maybe a little too well). She’s a master at characterization, and emulating her would also help me achieve my near-impossible goal of being funny (considering that I’ve boldly opined on the lack of humor in new Catholic literature). Perhaps, with Austen’s help, I’ll dream up another Mr. Collins?
One can only hope.
My one objection to using Pride and Prejudice is that it’s everyone’s mentor novel. Need proof? The Elizabeth Theory. Contemporary fiction has way, way too many Elizabeth knockoffs. Other than Shakespeare’s Beatrice (Much Ado About Nothing), I cannot think of a single female literary character prior to P&P with the temperament and talent of an Elizabeth Bennett. She became a type when she arrived on the scene – a beloved and much imitated type – and since then our female characters are measured according to the Pride and Prejudice standard.
My more pressing goal, however, is to work on plotting, and for that I can think of no better example than the Newbury Award winning novel The Witch of Blackbird Pond. That Disney hasn’t already turned it into a movie is surprising, considering its vast popularity with fifth-grade teachers. It’s a compelling and tightly written story set in colonial Connecticut, and the opening chapters are near perfection in its hook, establishment of the premise, characterization, scene structure, and foreshadowing. And, being a children’s story, the plot is easier to analyze. Kit is another Elizabeth Bennett type, of course, but otherwise it’d be a great book to imitate.
How about you? What novel (or book, for you non-fiction writers) would you choose as a mentor novel, and why?